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LOVE & SEX

The unspoken sexual politics of “sorting yourself out”

If your girlfriend is secretly masturbating while you shower after sex, chances are a conversation is in order, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Imagine, if you could, the following scenario: you have been dating someone for nine months – someone you really love having sex with, and who you think loves having sex with you – and find out they have been secretly masturbating in the shower after sex. You’re puzzled by this and maybe your feelings are a little hurt, so you ask for advice. Should you adjust your technique, spending a little more time on their body than your own? Talk to them? Ask them what their turn-ons are?

The advice you get is the following:

Do nothing.  

As a woman who has sex with men, I can’t imagine ever following this course of action. As a woman who has sex with men, my immediate emotional response would be to blame myself, scanning each area of my body, scowling at my stretchmarks, my rarely groomed legs, the occasional dark nipple hair that I leave unplucked. I would confront my sexual prowess with a level of interrogation usually reserved for rooms with bare, swinging lightbulbs. Am I becoming boring, predictable? Do we need to have sex in the kitchen more?

After a while, I would talk myself down. I would look online, talk to friends, ease up on myself. Eventually, after about a week of self-torture, I will discuss it with my partner. Eventually, we might get to the root of why he feels he needs to do this and have a gentle – carefully non-shaming! – conversation about his needs.

When a person (the photo with the piece suggests a man, but there’s no info to suggest gender) wrote into The Guardian about their girlfriend doing the exact same thing, they were instructed to leave her to it. “Perhaps she doesn’t want to bother you for that extra pleasuring, or maybe she is afraid you might think her too demanding,” writes psychotherapist Pamela Stephenson Connolly. There is no suggestion as to how the person could talk to their girlfriend and assure her that she is not demanding. There is no hint that the girlfriend may have failed to orgasm at all the first time or may not have enjoyed sex at all.

I don’t want to lay into this therapist for what feels like incredibly dated and not particularly useful advice, because it’s echoing a sentiment that is incredibly common – namely, that female pleasure is vague, undependable and not completely necessary to a mutually fulfilling sex life. That women can and should “sort themselves out”, privately, and that this in itself is empowering. And while masturbation plays a big part in sex, the idea of excusing yourself to a different room to do it is beyond depressing to me. Not only that, it’s completely regressive.

The conversation around orgasms is a constantly evolving one and, like all evolutions, sometimes there are awkward bits in the middle when not everything makes complete sense. In the 1970s, the female orgasm conversation grew up around second-wave feminism and became a mass market idea with the success of books like The Joy Of Sex. The 1990s took female orgasm as a given, a right and a responsibility – think Monica Geller filling out a diagram for Chandler on female pleasure (“a one, a two, a one-two-three… SEVEN! SEVEN! SEVEN!”).

Somewhere along the way, the conversation has gone from ‘not every woman orgasms and that’s OK’ to ‘not every woman orgasms, so consider this a blank cheque for ignoring her needs’

The way we feel about sex and pleasure is dependent on how culture feels about women, and how women feel about themselves. In the economically fecund 1990s, when city girls were riding high and Rampant Rabbits were discussed like the release of a next-generation iPhone, orgasms fell under the all-important tagline of “having it all”. In the 2010s, we tend not to talk about “having it all”, but realising instead that the ceaseless chase for “all” is a greyhound race where we all end up in cages. We talk about the pressure of being expected to have it all – the perfect sex life, career, family, wardrobe, social life – and have open conversations about how we don’t all orgasm, and that’s fine.

Orgasm can be tricky. On top of the physical stimulation, it requires a sense of mental blankness where you’re free to experience your own body and that can be really hard when you’re so focused on how sexy you might look during sex. “Women in general are really trained to see themselves from the outside and to get off on other people enjoying them,” says comedian Helen Duff, when I interviewed her for The School for Dumb Women podcast.

“I don’t want to make a fuss, I don’t want to make this an issue, let’s focus on you, I don’t want to be the problem…” recites Duff, going through the Rolodex of female excuses for not orgasming. “I completely understand why someone would go into sex saying, ‘Cards on the table, I’m not going to come, so let’s concentrate on you.'”

Somewhere along the way, the conversation has gone from “not every woman orgasms and that’s OK” to “not every woman orgasms, so consider this a blank cheque for ignoring her needs and never attempting to find what works for her”. Which is a little like saying: “I don’t eat meat, so don’t even attempt making a nice meal for me. No, no, just fill a mug full of porridge oats up with tepid water, and I’m good!”

The Guardian’s advice to the person whose girlfriend is secretly masturbating doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Honestly, I think it’s the tip of an iceberg of a whole culture that is theoretically open-minded but emotionally isolated from the act of sex itself. We all know that sex is a private matter, but should it really be private from your own partner?

@Czaroline

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